interviews / Q&A's

Meet Mike Shanahan: The Literary Lounge Q&A


Today, we’re delighted to welcome writer Mike Shanahan to The Literary Lounge. Mike’s beautiful book, Ladders to Heaven, is published by Unbound. It celebrates the fig tree, a ‘keystone species’ which sustains a huge number of animals and insects around the world and is also important not just in terms of our past but to our future, too.


Mike, thank you so very much for joining us and for taking the time to answer some questions.


LS: Trees seem to be a very attractive subject at the moment. What gives the fig the edge over other species?

MS: The fig trees are superlative in many ways. They feature in the stories of the most cultures, they feed the most species of wildlife, they are the most varied group of plants and they include some of the biggest and oldest plants on the planet. They have been around for more than 80 million years — since the time of the last giant dinosaurs. Since then, they have played a disproportionate role in shaping the world about us and even in shaping the evolution and cultural development of our own species. They are titans.


LS: What or who influenced you to specialise in rainforest ecology? Do you have any personal heroes?

MS: As a child I watched a lot of David Attenborough’s documentaries and it was always the forest scenes, not the seas or the savannahs, that enthralled me most. Before I started studying rainforests, I was lucky enough to visit the Amazon in Peru. The diversity of life there just blew my mind, and made me want to return to a rainforest as soon as possible. My heroes are the people who risk their lives to protect the rainforests. Every year, hundreds of activists, indigenous leaders and other forest protectors are killed doing just that. They are Davids facing off against the Goliaths of big mining, farming and logging interests, and their struggles are directly linked to patterns of consumption by people who live thousands of miles away from the forests.


LS: Tell us how your fascination with the fig tree began? Why figs?

MS: It was by accident really. For my masters degree, I was supposed to be studying the wild bird trade in Indonesia, but the project fell through. My supervisor, a fig biologist, asked some of his international colleagues if anyone could host me instead. Rhett Harrison in Borneo replied and off I went, to live and work in a rainforest national park that had about 80 species of figs. That was in 1997. My project turned into a doctorate and I spent the next three years studying figs and the animals that eat them in Borneo and Papua New Guinea. Worldwide, there are more than 750 fig species, and my favourites are the strangler figs. They grow from seeds that land high up on big trees. They send down aerial roots that seem to flow like molten wax, merging and splitting to create a mesh that eventually encases their host tree. They are eerie and awesome. Around the world, many different cultures have given a special place to strangler figs in their belief systems, and have made it a taboo to fell these trees.


LS: The fig tree is embedded in most cultures and religions around the world. Do you have a favourite myth or story?

MS: One of my favourite myths is the story of Sykeus, a Greek demi-god who was fleeing from an angry Zeus, who was trying to kill him with a lightning bolt. Gaia, the Earth Goddess and mother of Skyeus, opened up her chest, took him inside and turned him into the first fig tree. By saving Sykeus, Gaia gave humanity the gift of figs.


LS: You’ve referred to fig trees as ‘pop-up restaurants in the rain forest’. Why is the fig tree so important to our ecosystem?

MS: Unlike most rainforest trees, which produce their fruit at the same time, fig trees can fruit at any time of year. It means figs are available all year round. As a result, figs feed at least 1300 species of birds and mammals — far more than any other fruit. These animals disperse the seeds of thousands of plant species. So, fig trees play a critical role in sustaining the animal and plant life all around them.


LS: Ecologist EJH Corner said, ‘By themselves the figs could build a forest’, and you have also said that fig trees are important to the regeneration of rain forests. Can you explain how?

MS: Corner was referring to the sheer variety of fig species that grow in one place. On a single mountain in Borneo, he found 82 different fig species including shrubs, creepers, small trees and gigantic strangler figs. But fig trees can also build forests in a more literal sense. Their seeds can germinate pretty much anywhere — even in bare lava or concrete — and they grow fast, shading out weeds and soon producing figs. The figs attract birds and mammals that disperse the seeds of many other plant species. So, the arrival of figs in a deforested area can kickstart rainforest regeneration.


LS: What are fig-wasps? Why are they so important?

MS: Fig-wasps are the insects fig trees depend on to pollinate their flowers, which are hidden away inside their figs. The fig-wasps also depend on their fig tree partners as they can only breed and lay eggs inside their figs. This relationship is why there are ripe figs available all year round in rainforests and other ecosystems. If the fig-wasps disappeared, the fig trees would no longer produce ripe figs. Animals would starve and many other tree species would lose their seed dispersers. Some scientists warn that global warming will reduce the lifespan of the wasps and increase their risk of extinction, with knock-on effects for so many other species. Other scientists say fig-wasps are likely to adapt to rising temperatures. In truth, we don’t know what climate change means for fig trees and their wasps. But when the stakes are so high — not just for fig-wasps but for all life, us included — playing dice with the climate is a dangerous game.


LS: The US edition of your book is called Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, but the UK one has been retitled as Ladders to Heaven, can you explain both titles please?

MS: The US title refers to the many gods of many religions that are associated with fig trees, to the tiny wasps that are partners to each fig species, and to the some of the most spectacular of those plants — the strangler figs. The UK title refers to the belief, in diverse cultures around the world, that fig trees connect heaven and earth.


LS: You’ve said the strangler species have had bad press. Why?

MS: Strangler figs grow on other trees and often totally smother these host trees, so people often assume they are destructive forces. But the opposite is true. By sustaining many species of seed dispersing birds and mammals, the strangler figs are critical to the health of tropical forests and the rich variety of life they contain.


LS: How long did it take you to write this book? Was it difficult to get it published?

MS: I spent at least ten years working on the book in whatever spare moments I could find. I spoke with some literary agents about it who were very supportive of the idea, but eventually I went with Unbound, a fairly new publisher that uses a crowdfunding approach to bring to the market the books that traditional publishers are less willing to consider. This meant I had to convince a few hundred people, mostly strangers, to pay in advance for their copies. Unbound produced a cool promotional video to explain the book and we offered different rewards for pledgers, like prints of the book’s illustrations, which I drew. It was a great experience and it meant I was connected to my first readers long before the book came out. Thanks to their support, the book became a reality and is now available for anyone to buy. Unbound then sold the North American rights to a US-based publisher called Chelsea Green, which has brought out its own edition there.


LS: What was your aim in writing Ladders?

MS: My initial goal was simply to share the many astounding stories I had learned about fig trees — from their extraordinary biology to the profound impacts they have had on humanity. In telling these stories, I realised that the book is really about us and our relationship to the rest of nature. I want it to inspire wonder, hope, engagement and action.


LK: Do governments invest in fig tree planting?

MS: Scientists in countries such as Costa Rica, Thailand and Australia are using fig trees to boost biodiversity and encourage rainforests to regrow on land that has been logged. So far, government investment in this approach has been limited, but in India and Pakistan, fig trees do feature in large scale reforestation schemes. Governments across the tropics should be using native fig species to increase forest cover, which will help to protect wild species, improve lives and livelihoods, and limit climate change.


LS: What’s next for you?

MS: Currently, I’m working with organisations and projects that focus on illegal logging and the illegal wildlife trade, and on improving media coverage of environmental issues around the world. My most recent journalism was a story for Scientific American about how whale poop is really important to the oceans.


That all sounds very exciting, Mike. It’s been fascinating. Thanks so much for joining us. We wish your gorgeous book every success and look forward to reviewing it.



Ladders to Heaven | Mike Shanahan | Unbound | 6 September 2018 | paperback | £8.99

See review: forthcoming

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Acknowledgements: This Q&A is published as part of Ladders to Heaven virtual book tour, along with a review of the book (forthcoming). Many thanks to Mike Shanahan for sparing us the time, Anne Cater for organising the tour and the publisher for a review copy of the book. All thoughts and opinions are our own. Image: Mike Shanahan in the rain forest, Borneo, 1998 © Mike Shanahan 2018.



Selected The Literary Lounge Q&As/interviews:  ‘Meet Patrick Kincaid: The Literary Shed Q&A‘; ‘David Stuart Davies: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; ‘Meet Gina Kirkham: The Literary Lounge Q&A‘; ‘Gunnar Staalesen: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; ‘Meet Mary Jo Putney: The Literary Lounge Q&A‘; John Fairfax: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; ‘Ian Ridley: The Literary Shed Q&A’.

See also: ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘;‘Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world – Tall Oaks’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir’; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’.

Film: Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956). Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.


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